Meet the Musical Master Craftsman You’ve Heard, Yet Never Heard Of

 Meet the Musical Master Craftsman You’ve Heard, Yet Never Heard Of
Benoit Rolland explores his traditional methods and innovation during Meet the Makers
“The instrument makes the sound; the bow makes the music.”
That’s how Benoit Rolland, one of today’s most innovative and influential musical craftsmen – of whom even the most diehard music aficionados may not have heard – describes the role of his masterworks for the giants of orchestral music.

A MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient who was honored as a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by his native France, Rolland has turned his experience as a violinist into a vocation as the world’s foremost maker of bows for stringed instruments. The list of his accomplishments – and clients – is long and illustrious. And this summer, he will describe his life and work as part of the Tanglewood Learning Institute’s Meet the Makers series on July 5.

Many music fans are aware of famous violin makers like Stradivari or Guarneri, but may not consider bows in the same class of craftsmanship. What may seem a mere accessory is beyond a necessity – a vital if overlooked element to string performance. BSO violinist Lucia Lin, Dorothy Q. and David B. Arnold, Jr., chair, who will also participate in the Meet the Makers program and has had the pleasure of using Mr. Rolland’s bows, agrees. “You don't realize how important the bow is,” she says. “But it’s equally critical as what kind of violin you're playing on. And the difference in the sound a violin can have with different bows is just remarkable.”

“There is indeed a discrepancy in the knowledge that the public, and even musicians, has of the violin and of the bow,” says Rolland. “The bow is to the violin what sails are to a sailboat. Without sails, one can row the boat, but you will not surf the wave. The bow transforms the violin from a plucked to a melodic instrument. I would say that the bow almost transfigures the violin, gives it a voice.”

Approaching 50 years of bow making with more than 2,000 bows completed by hand, Rolland has continued to refine his masterwork in old-world methods – from his exacting choice of resonant pieces of Pernambuco wood to shaping each bow’s stick with hand tools and fire – while also developing several innovations that have changed how musicians approach their playing and their relationship with their musical tools. But he sees no conflict in this apparent dichotomy; it just fits his view of his craft. “Having worked in ancestral ways as well as with modern technologies, I see no need for a fight between ancient and modern, or for hanging on to the exclusive secrecy of a national heritage,” he says. “Traditions are born from innovation.”

Maestro Nelsons conducting with one of Rolland’s batons at Tanglewood.

His innovations do not rest only in the hands of string players, however. Rolland has also developed a more functional conductor’s baton that seeks to introduce the same ease of use that his bows do. “Starting from an analysis of the hand at work in conducting, I sculpted a shape that holds without effort inside the palm,” he says. “It was not enough to design an ergonomic baton: beyond hugging the hand, it had to fit the work dynamics.” And like his bows, you may have already seen one of Rolland’s batons in action and not even known – BSO Ray and Maria Stata Music Director Andris Nelsons used one in concert in the 2017 Tanglewood season.

Rolland’s work and innovation have not gone unnoticed among today’s top string artists, however, who compare him to the legendary bowmaker Francois-Xavier Tourte, who created the modern bow in the late 1700s. “I think of Benoit as today's Tourte, because he's constantly trying to make the bow more efficient and better,” says Lin. “He’s stretching the limits of what is possible instead of copying what the masters did. And it's really inspiring to hear him talk about bows, always searching with his creative process and how to make a bow better.”

Participants in Rolland’s Meet the Makers discussion on July 5 will not only get to hear him talk about his process and improvements but will also hear some of those bows in the capable hands of Lin, one of the many talented players who lauds Rolland’s creativity.

Rolland, for his part, is delighted to participate in the TLI’s inaugural season, and the intersection of music, society, and curiosity that it represents. “The TLI certainly has an important role to play,” he says. “I see it as an access to beauty and thinking, an alternative to the increasing standardization of the ordinary and growing inelegance of anything for public use. Beauty, artwork in process, and minds at work shouldn’t be a privilege, but shared humanity at its best. The TLI can be this breakthrough, bringing discoveries and happy surprises year after year.”

Such beauty, and some happy surprises too, will be available for all to enjoy during Meet the Makers with Benoit Rolland on July 5.

Other Meet the Makers series programs include: Meow Meow, “post-post-modern diva” (July 9); Joan Tower, composer (July 10); Tom Stoppard, playwright (July 24); Stephen H. Carver, piano technician and Steinway Spirio (July 29); Aiven O’Leary, flute-maker and Alan Weiss, flutist (August 21).

For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit tli.org.

See Taylor de Lench’s short film about Rolland, The Bow Maker:


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